Saturday, December 14, 2013

“We the People” or Us vs. Them?

© Charles D. Hayes

I grew up immersed in locally based politics. Most often this was expressed as us versus them in regard to people who showed any signs of being politically progressive. We felt that our group had a franchise on moral truth. The key word here is felt. We weren’t doing a very good job of thinking. Our intentions may have been noble, but our views were skewed locally and our antagonistic posture imposed a greater emotional tax on us than it did on the ones we opposed. Unfortunately this ethos is still pervasive in America.
Over the years, I’ve learned that digging deep beneath conventional textbook history is the best chance we have to create enough dissonance in our minds to rethink antisocial political attitudes that are based entirely on feelings. When we do that, it becomes clear that mainstream Americans celebrate a past that didn’t happen as is commonly believed, a West that never was, and an economy that doesn’t work as promoted. After all, much of what we believe about ourselves is based upon what we’ve been told happened historically.

In the early days of radio and television, limited transmission focused public attention and gave everyone something in common to talk about. Today, people use technology to switch between gadget-driven isolation and ideological echo chambers.

In a little over a century, we have gone from a strong ethos of self-restraint to one of self-indulgence and instant gratification. Even so, the nineteenth-century Emersonian idea of self-reliance remains a very important part of our folklore. Self-reliance is an individual aspiration to be encouraged because, when it is genuine and not hype, it is the communal grease of authentic guidance that can make the wheels of cooperation turn without squeaking bitterness and resentment.

That said, the Horatio Alger notion of widespread success being mostly due to rugged individualism is a myth. The American frontier did indeed include lots of hard-working individuals, but by today’s standards, this epoch was far more socialistic than is portrayed in popular culture, especially by Tea Party conservatives.
Socialism in America in the nineteenth and early twentieth century was a movement fueled by despair and by people like writer Jack London, who sought to stop the savage exploitation of the working poor. The term socialist was always treated as pejorative, but it didn’t become radioactive until the Cold War. As a result, it still evokes an irrational and overly emotional response, regardless of the context.

The phrase “We the people” in our Constitution is socialistically aspirational because the implication is that we are all in this thing called America together. The Cold War, however, overtly prejudiced us against those things we depend on collectively by associating them with an enemy considered diabolical. The experience rendered millions of our citizens incapable of stilling their emotions long enough to reason with any sense of objectivity about anything that appears to be tainted by association with our former nemesis.
And yet, those things that make our lives both possible and worthwhile—like our military, Social Security, Medicare, the Veterans Administration, and our legal, regulatory, transportation, and postal systems—are overt acts of social cooperation. Giving a community control over aspects of the production of things that affect their daily lives is not an evil act. Moreover, our military makes it clear that a sense of patriotism more powerful than self-interest is commonplace in public institutions.

Federal funding was the real pay-dirt of the American frontier, as sociologist Stephanie Coontz points out in The Way We Never Were. Frontier settlers owed their very existence to huge federal land grants, railroad expansion, and many other government actions taken to seed prosperity.

Settlers could get a 160-acre homestead for as little as ten dollars. Sharing work and tools with neighbors was a predominant way of life. Even volunteers for civic projects expected to be compensated by the government. Most of the families that were isolated and truly alone ended their adventure in failure.
In 1945, another massive expansion of government spending combined with high taxes made it possible for record numbers of people to enter the middle class. Rural electrification, construction of the Interstate Highway System, the GI Bill, the FHA, and many other programs like them made America the envy of the world. For lack of a better term, let’s call these historical occurrences facts.

It is also undisputable that some of our highest rates of economic growth occurred during a period of high taxes. And yet, no matter how many times these historical occurrences are mentioned, those who would rather not believe it choose not to.
When an ethos of self-indulgence overrides self-restraint, the goodwill necessary to continue the cooperation that made this country a place of envy disintegrates. When you add the ethnocentric impulse to believe that one’s group is special and that most others are undeserving, the result is an us-versus-them mentality by an opposition so emotionally enraged that they would rather shut down the government than cooperate.

Some of our most successful corporations reward their permanent employees with wages so low that they expect taxpayers to subsidize them with welfare and food stamps. This is not an exercise of freedom; it’s more feudalistic than capitalistic, and the practice must stop. Any business that relies on social contempt so that the public will turn a blind eye to the institutionalization of poverty doesn’t deserve to survive.
Our social relations are problematic because we are a tribal species. The cooperation necessary to function successfully as a sovereign nation depends upon how big and how diverse a tribe our citizens are willing to accept. That’s what a civic education in American idealism is supposed to achieve. In a nutshell, our ideals are supposed to trump our genes and tribalistic selfishness. Our common allegiance is supposed to supersede our local differences.

If social relations were software, core American ideals would be a virus patch for the ethnocentric tribal bug most commonly expressed thoughtlessly as them. That was the hope and the promise of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and it’s the affirming value of the Pledge of Allegiance.
Allowing ruthless politicians to provoke us emotionally so that we view those with opposing political opinions as the embodiment of evil is egregiously self-destructive. Both conservative and liberal values are crucial for attaining and sustaining democracy. Cooperation is just as important as self-interest, and in many cases much more so.

“We the people” is the founding principle of the American tribe. It is nothing to be ashamed of or squeamish about. If it’s not a social aspiration, what is? If not “we the people,” then who or what is more important? Politicians who forget the people they are supposed to represent and citizens who are easily distracted by divisive politics and fail to hold their representatives accountable pose the greatest threat to America’s future.

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Sunday, November 17, 2013

Hating the Government Bandwagon

© Charles D. Hayes

Lately I’ve been preoccupied with novelist Saul Bellow's observation that people, especially Americans, seem readily willing to hate the very things that make their lives possible. But alas, I think the reason is so simple and straightforward that it's easily overlooked. Bear with me while I explain.

We have an enormous volume of psychological research available on the difference between the worldviews of liberals and of conservatives. The simplest and most consistent criteria for discerning the variance seems to depend on whether or not a person is open to new experience.

Testing this theory, numerous studies have shown that it’s possible to determine with significant accuracy whether toddlers as young as three or four will grow up to be liberals or conservatives. Children who relish autonomy and are drawn to novelty grow up to be politically liberal, and those who are fearful, wary, anxious, and distrustful about change and uncertainty grow up to be conservatives.

Given our history, it’s clear that both of these postures are useful and necessary in order to sustain and maintain society. There are times and situations in which both approaches are critical to the well-being of society.

More basic, though, than our political inclinations is the compelling mound of evidence that we humans are a tribal species. It is in our nature to pay sharp attention to differences among our fellow human beings and to associate food shortages and pathogens with strangers. We are predisposed to favor our own customs and our own kind, period. The notion that cultural differences should be celebrated does not fare well globally.

To see how these tendencies play out, consider the state of the economy. Since the partial financial meltdown in 2008, every media source informs us constantly that America's middle class is in free fall. What does this portend? In a nutshell: scarcity. What happens when we face the scarcity of anything of value? Simple: scarcity is a call to focus.

This brings us to the crux of tribalism. What are people who are fearful about change and uncertainty likely to focus on? You guessed it: the other. Outsiders are perceived as freeloaders simply because they are outsiders. And who stands in, both figuratively and literally, for the other? Again, you guessed it: the government because the government caters to everyone, including strangers.

Granted, all human beings have a built-in wariness against free riders. People who don't pull their own weight threaten our success. But there’s something most people simply do not get— especially hard-right conservatives—and it's critical to furthering the goodwill necessary to sustain ourselves as one nation.

Yes, we have free riders in our midst, people who expect something for nothing and who whose mission in life is to game the system. Short on virtue, these individuals are found among the rich and poor alike. They will always be with us, and we do indeed need to take steps to curb their behavior.

But, if we’ve paid attention to our actual history, we know that we are way ahead of the free riders. It’s not a contest, and this is something liberals are much more likely to observe and acknowledge. Free riders in our society are simply rendered unimportant because they are overshadowed by those in our past who have sacrificed their very lives for the rest of us. The cost of free riders is dwarfed by the contributions of our fellow citizens who remain strangers only because we lack direct knowledge of their sacrifices.

Up against Arlington Cemetery, the free riders don't even warrant a mention. Our men and women on active duty in the armed services, those in law enforcement, and firefighters stand ready and willing to risk their lives in service of the rest of us. Millions of our citizens are dedicated public servants, and millions more spend their whole lives working tirelessly in the shadows for the betterment of society.

We have the lowest tax rates in a half-century, and yet the carping about high taxes is unrelenting. We are more than $2 trillion behind in the maintenance of our hard and soft infrastructure, but that doesn’t stop the thoughtless handwringing about being overtaxed. Nor does it burst the fantasy bubble of ideologues who envision a dynamic country with a strong middle class, a small and powerless government, and very low taxes, even though there has never been an example of this kind of economy in the history of civilization.

That our government is in need of reform is painfully obvious, starting with the uncoupling of its entanglement with special-interest lobbyists and corporate influence. But hatred of government among egregiously ill-informed citizens is so pervasive today that it results in political support for underfunding successful government programs and then using the diminished capacity of the government agencies as proof that they weren’t needed in the first place. That critics can use this approach to enrage ill-informed people against the very thing than sustains their way of life is a tragedy that defies adult logic.

We are free in America because of our government, not in spite of it. If you doubt this, take a quick look at Somalia. Without the stability behind our laws, regulatory agencies, social programs, and public services, we are anything but free.

I share Saul Bellow's torment and sense of irony over those whose major contribution to society is to whine constantly about a government that they clearly could not live without. And yet their limited involvement is to jump on the government-hatred bandwagon. Then, in their next breath, they declare we are the greatest country on earth, believing themselves to be totally self-reliant citizens who owe everything they have to their own glorious efforts and to no one else.

I don’t deny the enormous amount of waste in government programs perpetuated by corruption and kept in place through a standoff somewhere between spite and contempt. We can’t even stop the military industrial complex from making weapons we don’t need. But all one has to do to imagine the country without a federal government is to envision professional football without rules or referees. If enough people would get off the hate-the-government bandwagon, we could fix it without the anguish of perpetual punting.
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Saturday, October 19, 2013

America’s Adult Learning Crisis

© Charles D. Hayes

For three decades I've been writing about the merits and rewards of self-directed continuing education. Having spent so much time and effort trying to better understand the world before checkout time, I can attest without hesitation that the intellectual exhilaration to be had from a willful determination to learn adds immeasurably to the pleasure of living.  

At the same time, my hopes for broadening the reach of lifelong learning among adults borders on despair, because much of what is characterized today as patriotism, especially in hard-right politics, really amounts to a celebration of ignorance. Worse, an in-your-face brand of simple-mindedness is at war with science, the humanities, and most efforts to fight inequality. 

Low-information citizens get much of their authoritative sense of virtue from a stream of hearsay and contemptuous innuendo coming from those with whom they already identify. This renders them oblivious to critical but factual evidence about the nature of cause and effect.  

To be sure, these are otherwise wonderful people. They would give you the shirt off their back, shelter you in a storm, and feed you if you were starving—unless, of course, they somehow viewed you as other. And even then, they might make an exception, since up close you might not seem as bad as they have been led to believe. If we were at war, these people would be first in line to volunteer. 

You and I know them as parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, and neighbors. Where these individuals come up short is in understanding the human predicament on a much larger scale than their own small sphere. These low-information citizens don't read much, and if they listen to or watch newscasts at all, it's likely from a partisan source. 

Many of these citizens regard critical thinking as an obligation to be overtly judgmental of others. They develop most of their opinions by talking to people who mirror their own political certainty about things that, for all practical purposes, they know nothing about whatsoever because they never examine anything in depth. 

I know about this subject first-hand. I grew up in a low-information culture, and for years in my youth I was an active participant. Active participation in low-information culture means that one is belligerent for nonsensical reasons and forever on alert for acts of disrespect by those considered outsiders. 

In my region of the country in the 1940s and '50s, racism was rampant, social conformity was expected, and a fundamentalist religious community was thought necessary to sustain morality. The sad reality is that things haven't changed all that much in some parts of the country; this kind of social ethos is still representative in many localities all over America. The bigotry and racism is still there. In most cases, it's not as blatant as before, but in some, it's as bad as ever. 

Millions of uneducated people claim that their religion and their worldview is the only virtuous path to the truth, whatever that might be, and their only rationale for holding such beliefs is one borne of local consensus. This identity-based way of life leads people to form an us-and-them mentality, and it fosters a kind of conceit that closes group membership at the mere appearance of differences or questioning of the status quo. Any and all cultural criticism is viewed as sacrilegious, subversive, or treasonous behavior.  

Attitudes like these result in an exaggerated sense of self-importance that manifests itself in religious defensiveness, Constitutional illiteracy, ethnic prejudice, and partiality toward military aggression, pseudo-history, economic misinformation, and political paranoia.  

Now, it doesn't take a university study to figure this out. If you suspect you live in a region of the country that sounds like the above, go to your nearest street corner or grocery store and ask the people you meet there a few simple questions. You will likely meet some very articulate and well educated citizens. But you will also meet many individuals whose political opinions are so farfetched from reality that they sound paranoid or schizophrenic. Chances are, the less they know about the real world, the more strident and boisterous their views will be.  

Elsewhere I have written extensively about the need for an existential education, not just for a few of us, but for everyone. An existential education simply amounts to learning enough about humanity and the human condition to disabuse a person of the notion that one’s respective culture has reality nailed and that all of the other poor fools in the world are simply lost or potentially evil. An existential education enables us to deal with the angst that comes with the human condition without the need to blame others for our own insecurities. 

In his book Who Owns the Future, computer scientist Jaron Lanier argues that digital networks are decimating America's middle class. He maintains that our technology is eliminating jobs faster than it creates them in an environment where better technology results in more and more unemployment. In support of this view, books are being published every month sounding the alarm that America's middle class is dying economically. 

If we don't find the political will to address the growing needs of legions of low-wage workers, it doesn't take a lot of imagination to guess how this will play out with low-information citizens. The blame game could easily escalate to the point where people take to the streets. Arab springs may one day soon be eclipsed by American winters.  

This is indeed ironic because there is a lot to be legitimately upset about. Washington DC has become a bastion of corruption for which both of our major political parties are responsible. Simply put, we may be in for a tsunami of misplaced anger and an attempt to topple our government without the goodwill and knowledge to map out a system of redress that works for all Americans. Aggressive, wide-ranging education for all adults and soon-to-be adults may be the only remedy. Let’s hope it doesn’t take a catastrophe to inspire such a movement.
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Saturday, September 21, 2013

The False Allure of Gridlock

© Charles D. Hayes

Pretend for a moment a medical checkup reveals that you may be on the verge of a heart attack if you don't receive medical attention. The matter is urgent. You have one of two options: bypass surgery or a new regime of drug therapy. Both approaches have a proven track record, and you find the choice to be a tough one. But it turns out your opinion doesn’t even count. You see, in this scenario, the country you live in has only two doctors, and the two can't agree on which approach to take. One doctor’s vote can block the other’s. Your only option is to wait and wait and wait. You could die before a decision is reached.
This is precisely the predicament many people find themselves in today. Millions of our citizens are being negatively affected by orchestrated gridlock: legislative stalemate, funds for education cut, construction projects on hold, political appointments blocked, unemployment payments denied, crumbling infrastructure with no money allocated for maintenance, and scores of unfunded or underfunded government programs that are vital to our middle class and to people who are barely hanging on economically. These situations range from inconvenient to life-threatening.
I have friends who take a great deal of satisfaction in the idea of legislative gridlock as a viable political strategy. There was a time in America when I believed their views were justified because it was intended as a temporary tactic, not a permanent solution. Divided government works if politicians want it to work and if they act accordingly. Democracy depends upon compromise and, in point of fact, cannot exist without it.
But when ideology becomes immersed in identity and fuses with the notion that we are right simply because of who we are, the process is no longer democratic. When the parties declare that if you oppose us you are evil, and that the sole objective henceforth is to stop the opposition, regardless of what is proposed, there is nothing to do except wait for cardiac arrest.
Our history makes it plainly clear that neither political party has a lock on the truth of how best to govern. Both liberal and conservative approaches are necessary at times. Some plans work and some don't. But to take the position that everything one side proposes has to be stopped—even if the government is shut down and needless suffering among the citizens will be the result—is a form of political mockery that undermines the democratic process.
Democracy works only if the desire for solutions to our problems can trump ideology. Ideology is something all of us have that can be measured in degrees. But when the rigidity of one’s politics becomes a closed system, any hope of achieving consensus is lost. Our three branches of government are supposed to provide checks and balances, and yet today ideology is so stringent that Congress makes every effort to prevent many appointments to the judiciary from even taking place.
Democracy is a dangerous political system because there is always the risk that it will allow things to happen that will abolish it. Balancing power is a precarious pursuit simply because of what power is. When citizens don't pay attention to political reality, a vacuum exists and power rushes in to fill it, as essayist Isaiah Berlin so often explained.
Our elected lawmakers add thousands of tweaks to the legislation they produce to rig the system on behalf of special interests, who then give their clientele exceptional treatment. When criticized for such tactics, the corporate interests call it "freedom," and if pressed further, "moral truth." There’s a simple reason that Obamacare is under unrelenting siege by legislators, who are themselves under pressure from lobbyists: Obamacare hamstrings the ability of the health insurance industry to profit at the expense of medical treatment.
That things are not as they first appear is one of life's most important lessons. At the same time, it is also one of the hardest lessons to act on—especially when it comes to politics—because we are too often blinded by emotion. People imprisoned by ideology are easy to recognize when they show up on television news as suicide bombers, but they are much harder to spot when they parrot views we agree with.
Most of the problems we face are much more nuanced and complicated than they are made to seem by both liberals and conservatives. Media pundits and politicians offer simplistic explanations to complex problems too often. If we were to delve into these matters in deeper detail, we could discover things that shed new light on the issues and perhaps reveal new solutions. Yet most of our citizens get caught up solely in the emotion and look no further than how wrong the other side is, based upon superficial hearsay.
We can have gridlock in which those with heart conditions get no treatment, or we can try more than one procedure. I would prefer to let either liberals or conservatives try what they think is the right approach (without keeping the other side from voting), and then hold them accountable at election time, rather than let myriad problems continue to stagnate from gridlock.
The sad truth is that liberals, conservatives, and libertarians all want pretty much the same things in life; they just disagree about solutions. Contrast their behavior today with the way we cooperate in wartime when we have a common enemy. If we can ever awaken to the realization that our problems are our common enemy, instead of each other, we might actually solve our problems through democratic means and move ahead.
Television interviews frequently feature pundits who offer smug satisfaction about political gridlock, claiming it is better than the alternative. These people obviously are not having chest pains. Supporters of gridlock have one thing in common: they all benefit from things as they are.
If ideology continues to obstruct our ability to function, our future as a viable nation is seriously in doubt. 
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Saturday, August 24, 2013

Racism Egregiously Misunderstood

© Charles D. Hayes

When I was growing up in the South during the 1940s and ’50s, I had no idea I was internalizing a racist attitude. During this period, Gordon Allport, one of the preeminent social psychologists of the twentieth century, was studying the nature of prejudice, and in 1954, he published The Nature of Prejudice, which remains a classic. He defined prejudice as follows: “Prejudice is a pattern of hostility in interpersonal relations which is directed against an entire group, or against its individual members; it fulfills a specific irrational function for its bearer.”
 Today it is not unusual to hear declarations by white men claiming no responsibility for slavery because, they argue, they have never owned slaves. Others make adamant assertions that they are free of racial bias. Although my memories are mercifully vague, I don’t doubt that I spouted similar views as a young man. But years ago, when I realized how wrong I had been about the real nature of racial prejudice, the subject became a major focus of my scholarship, and I have been studying the pathology of prejudice ever since.
A common mistake in characterizing the nature of prejudice is to attempt to describe it as a conscious sense of awareness— a front-page choice that requires overt acknowledgment. To say, for example, “Since, at this moment, I bear this or that race no prejudicial thoughts, I am therefore not prejudiced” is a complete misunderstanding of racism.
Bias is often hidden. Culturally internalized bias doesn’t stand out as a discernibly educated opinion—it looks like straight-up reality. When we view the circumstances before us, our perception appears to be, as Allport described the process, a “single act of cognition.” If you are a bigoted cop, you will have no trouble rationalizing racial profiling because you will be able to give all kinds of reasons for profiling that have nothing at all to do with your hidden assumptions for doing so. As an ex-cop, I know this to be true from countless observations and personal experience.
That Mayor Michael Bloomberg attributes a decline in New York’s City’s murder rate solely to its stop-and-frisk policy is absurd. There are myriad reasons for the falling rates of violent crime. Even in large cities that don’t follow the practice, murder rates are down. Stop and frisk is an example of discrimination in its most refined form because, without a second thought, the mayor has given a pass to the humiliation minorities incur from being randomly detained and searched.
Seeds of contempt find fertile soil in acts of disrespect. Simply put: Stop and frisk legitimizes hidden bias. Supporters of stop and frisk argue that 94 percent of crimes against black people are committed by black citizens. Big deal. They neglect to mention that 86 percent of crimes against white people are committed by white people. Moreover, if you were to randomly stop and frisk more and more white people, their arrest numbers would go up accordingly. 
If you are a prejudiced employer, you aren’t likely to perceive you are turning someone down for employment because of the person’s race. What will happen is that your subconscious will come into play, and it will offer rationalizations for not hiring the individual that simply seem like common sense. But in reality, those rationalizations might very well be conclusions based on a personal history of thousands of subtle observations and inferences.
Prejudicial judgments are something we internalize from life experience, and they can be so subtle that we don’t realize we are learning anything. When in our youth we hear friends or family members make prejudicial statements, we notice their body language at a level somewhere beneath our conscious awareness. Then at some point in the future, such experiences will have been repeated so often that they’re likely to be set in cement and will require a jackhammer of dissonance to alter.
Allport observed that prejudice is most often acquired via blind conformity. He noted that “not every overblown generalization is a prejudice,” adding that “prejudgments become prejudices only if they are not reversible when exposed to new knowledge.” Understanding this is crucial. Most people who have not studied how our minds operate assume their perception is unadulterated reality. Research has made clear, however, that it’s anything but.
Learned prejudice is like read-only software. It can take a long time to become written into a program, but once it’s set in gray matter, altering the code will take an enormous emotional and intellectual effort. You probably know scores of people, as I do, whose views on racial matters could not be changed with waterboarding.
Assertions by individuals who claim to bear no responsibility for racism bring to mind the work of Henry David Thoreau, who accepted the premise: That government is best which governs least. When used by itself in political arguments, the assertion completely misses Thoreau’s point about government. What he went on to advocate was better government, and the great misfortune in failing to realize the substance of his argument comes simply from not understanding Citizen Thoreau. If most people were like him, citizenship would be viewed differently and so would our expectations of government.
Thoreau assured us that we are clearly not responsible for what happened in the past, but we are unequivocally responsible for what is. If we grow up in a system that is unjust by design, Thoreau considered it our duty to make it right, because to benefit from an unjust system without working to correct it is to be an accomplice.
For Thoreau, just because we never owned slaves doesn’t absolve us of the current legacy of inequality that owes itself to centuries of oppression. We have made progress in race relations among many diverse groups of people, but it takes many generations of families who’ve made incremental but necessary advances into the middle class to provide the foundational stability for the future success of the generations who follow. Personal failure without an established family to fall back on is a roadblock to success. Social capital is extremely important. And if you don’t believe this, you simply haven’t thought it through or examined the statistical evidence.
Children are not born prejudiced. Prejudice has to be learned. Myriad psychological studies have demonstrated that children internalize the subtleties of race early on. We should find it hurtful and morally unacceptable that we cannot correct an environment in which young black children prefer white dolls because of what they’ve learned about living. Beneath their consciousness they’ve noted that white is good and black is not.
It’s hard to overstate how important it is to fully understand the way our worldviews are viscerally connected to our attitudes about race and identity. At a subconscious level, we compare ourselves continuously to those whom we perceive as different. Indeed, the fact that we are intuitively adept at discerning slight signs of otherness prompted Sigmund Freud to write extensively about the narcissism of minor differences.
All human beings are keen about noticing dissimilarities. This is why we tend to vote our identities and not our pocketbooks, as evidenced by the irrational antics of those who can’t relate to the president of the United States in any given administration. Patriotism, as Allport noted, is “often a mask for bigotry,” and “extreme bigots are almost always super-patriots.”
The current political obsession with freedom has very little to offer regarding the responsibilities of citizenship. The freedom slogans we hear so often today say nothing, whatsoever, about the role individuals must play in order to obtain and sustain a just democracy. Bigotry feeds on illiteracy. It’s long past time we stopped being slaves to ignorance and began to relate to all Americans as Americans, regardless of race, religion, creed, or color. 
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Saturday, July 27, 2013

Belief and the Residue of Honor

© Charles D. Hayes

Wouldn't it have been great if, when we were growing up, there had been an audible signal when each of our beliefs achieved the rigidity of concrete? Imagine hearing inspirational music with announcements declaring, "Listen up, this is important. This is going to be your opinion from now on." Of course, this doesn't occur. Instead, our respective cultures play a strategic role in shaping our views without notice for most of our lives.

We don't grow up making up our minds about the world independent of our communities. Quite the contrary: we carry many of our customs, beliefs, prejudices, and aspirations with us to our graves. Each new generation, however, rejects some things learned from their elders while internalizing others wholeheartedly. The pendulum of liberal-versus-conservative politics is always at sway in the wind, but it never ventures so far in one direction that it doesn't at some point reverse course.

America would benefit tremendously if each and every one of us would routinely take the time and effort to examine our own beliefs genealogically and follow them all of the way back to ideological bedrock. It is incredibly powerful and insightful to discover how and why we view the world as we do. Much of what we come to believe as straight-up reality is the residue of past events and customs that bear little resemblance to the world we live in today.

I grew up in the South, in Texas and Oklahoma, in the 1940s and ’50s. As a teenager, when I went to movies and saw an example of, say, a New York cab driver shouting obscenities at a male passenger or a pedestrian and nothing happened as a result, it didn't seem real. This didn't seem possible in my community because you could not shout insults in another man's face without an obligatory fistfight. Being publicly humiliated required immediate redress.

 There was no music or voice-over announcement when I absorbed the notion that an in-your-face insult had to be answered with a physical response. Nevertheless, this ethos is still so much a part of my psyche that no amount of intellectual rigor can rid me of the felt need to respond to an egregious insult in this manner. At my age, though, I imagine the offender might yet go unscathed.

Now, when you take customs like this to their ideological foundations, things get really interesting. In their book Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South, Dov Cohen and Richard E. Nisbett report research showing that when men of the South are insulted, they experience rapidly escalating increases of testosterone and cortisol. And yet, this is not usually the case with men raised in the North. Stated simply: we absorb our culture with congealed emotion that sets up like cerebral cement.

Historically the culture of defending oneself as a matter of principle traces back to the antebellum notion of Southern honor. From there, it goes all the way back to herding cultures and then back further still to the male dominance expressed in sacred religious texts. In other words, this ethos is about pious behavior ensconced in the values of protecting the flock against any and all comers with a posture aggressive enough to ward off all those who might be tempted to trespass or bring harm.

If you are old enough to recall the 1950s and ’60s, you will recognize the residue of herding culture psychology combined with a hybrid notion of Southern honor and the stoic resolve of Native Americans as fundamental to a major theme of Western movies: A rugged, unshakable stranger comes to town and is not to be offended or affronted without grave consequences that, more often than not, result in a gunfight. The core cultural thread that holds this attitude together is the unspoken declaration that it is a man's world and men are meant to be in charge. Millions of Americans still feel the influence of this cultural pressure on our identity.

This ethos continues to prevail across the country, especially in politically red states, where an established sense of patriarchal authority reigns with regard to how people—especially women—should behave. The gentility of the Old South, in particular, is steeped in a historical connection with the philosophy of herding cultures and the protection and sense of ownership of both women and slaves. Above reproach, ladylike behavior and demonstrated subservience by both women and slaves amplified the resident white gentlemen’s sense of honor. All actions or behaviors to the contrary were, and still are, suspect.

When we hear people say things like, "I have nothing against homosexuals, except when they shove it in my face," what they are really expressing is the angst of a threatened worldview. Their identity is at risk, and this is a really scary situation for them. If they discover a rip in the fabric of what they consider reality, especially what they revere as moral truth, then the fissure has the potential to grow wider and could ultimately include their religion, their politics, and even their simple prescription for what constitutes a meaningful life. Moreover, the older one is, the greater the threat, since the thought of having lived one's whole life in existential error is as psychologically devastating as facing the end of the world. 

 If people are increasingly defying norms and behaving more and more in ways other than are commonly considered acceptable, or if their actions fly in the face of local expectations, such behavior will be experienced as existentially frightening by those who revere custom. An endangered worldview portends mortal peril, and the visceral response is to fight such change as something evil.    

In the antebellum South, it's hard to overestimate the amount of influence men were expected to have over the behavior of women, especially when it comes to being seen as protecting them and their reputation. Thus, every aspect of feminism was and still is a threat to traditional patriarchy, and those who conform and behave as expected resent those who resist.

Take the issue of abortion. What interests me most is that many of the people who are most vocal about being pro-life appear to hold their belief, not so much because of an actual concern for unborn children, but more out of a desire to protect a parochial and patriarchal worldview. Now I'm sure there are exceptions, but regardless of your gender, if you are aggressively pro-life ask yourself this question: If you take this issue clear to its core, do you really care all that much about unborn children, or could this have more to do with the way you were raised and how you were taught women are supposed to behave? How much concern do you show for children, other than your own, when the subject of abortion is set aside? How do you reconcile the deep irony in the scientific admonition that the exponential growth of human population threatens our very existence?

On the other hand, if you believe absolutely in a woman's right to choose whether or not to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term, where do you think this assumption originates and how did you come to believe it? What sense of a woman's freedom do you think enables you to readily discount the life of an unborn child? At what point do you think ending the life of a fetus is wrong?

 Reflection of this kind takes a formidable amount of soul-searching. Our desire to be honest with ourselves has to be stronger than the concrete in which our foundational beliefs are set, if we are to venture far enough to see the issue from another point of view, let alone change our minds.   

 This is precisely why learning about our history is so important for deciding who we really are and how we are to behave. We typically use all sorts of expressions that bear little resemblance to their origins. For example, it is not uncommon today for people to refer to someone during an argument as an SOB. But few, I suspect, mean this in the way it was used in the Old South, when the worst possible insult was to literally demean another person's mother with the term. When we fail to understand how and why we hold our beliefs about the world, we are too easily manipulated politically and the emotional fallout shows itself as a surplus of arrogance and contempt. 

Most of the things that we believe constitute our worldview are deeply imbedded in our sense of identity. Very often the main reason we take sides on an issue has much more to do with the fact that our respective identity group has already taken the position and we feel obliged to join in. This, in my view, helps no one because, until we do the kind thinking that gets us beyond the simple notion of identity, we have little hope of achieving the kind of objectivity that would assure a sense of honor for ourselves as individuals and our respective groups.

 A genuine sense of moral objectivity becomes possible only when we delve deeply into the genealogy of our beliefs and discover things that, had we known earlier, would likely have caused us to honorably change our viewpoint. But here is the really hard part: Even when we do change our minds, intellectual effort alone is not enough to neutralize the deep-seated emotion in which our beliefs are set. To truly change our minds, we have to override the old conviction with a passion more powerful than the emotion that enabled it to establish itself as belief in the first place.

 To accept one's culture without question is to spend life as a prisoner of the past.

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Saturday, June 29, 2013

CEOs Assert the License to Loot

© Charles D. Hayes

Three decades ago, futurist John Naisbitt asserted that "it is easier to ride a horse in the direction it is already going." A slightly modified version can aptly be applied to the egregiously exaggerated value of CEOs in America. That is to say, it's easier to be viewed as a wunderkind executive, if the business one has been selected to run is already booming.
There are, in my opinion, few more counterfeit notions than the overstated hype about CEO expertise on the global business stage. To command obscene compensation requires that there be an ongoing public relations effort to keep the mythic notion of exceedingly rare talent in the air. It ought to be called "The Great Duping of America," because this is precisely what has happened and is continuing to occur as a way to prevent the rate of exploitation from being impaired.
No doubt there are many CEOs with good management skills, but it is a stretch far beyond credulity to say their special expertise is worthy of the right to loot a public enterprise and to persist in doing so even when the venture is losing money. This is going on right before our eyes, and yet we watch silently in awe like nothing more than a bunch of uninformed fools. It's as if we have, as Erich Fromm put, it "swallowed the principles of power."
In this case, we’ve tacitly endorsed the right of certain individuals to collect unlimited compensation based on a brand of inflated expertise so special and so utterly unique that few of us are able to say precisely what it is. Not to mention the corporate missteps and blunders that occur daily, or the criminal malfeasance behind the 2008 Wall Street meltdown, for which virtually all of the executives responsible have gone unpunished, though, of course, they did get their bonuses.
The plain truth, if we simply think it through, is that when business is on the upswing, you could pick as the new CEO any warm body off the street with a demonstrated penchant for good judgment, and business would continue to thrive. For every Steve Jobs there are scores of performers who are mediocre at best, unless their particular business happens to be stuck in an upward cycle. We have a tendency to remember the successful examples and forget the failed performances. 
Reality is harsh, though, as the many CEOs who are not so well endowed with good judgment prove day in and day out. A Google search on the term CEO incompetence will produce more than a million hits. These executives can make blatant management errors, and yet the prevailing fairy tale of extraordinary expertise still awards them astronomical compensation.
One of the advantages of getting old is that pretentiousness gets easier to spot. I say, there is no more excuse for stratospheric reward at the top of business than there is for slave wages at the bottom. The license for executives to loot is no more necessary or justifiable in a nation that calls itself great than is the license for businesses to exploit labor with the full expectation that taxpayers will subsidize via food stamps the employees whose compensation is below the poverty line.
Shame on the successive generations of us who grew up learning and discussing the parable of the emperor who had no clothes, but who demonstrate through our actions today that we have learned nothing from it. It might be accurate to say that America has become the laughing stock of the developed world, except that our ignorance-based subservience to powerful myths of excellence and Ayn Rand notions of self-interest on steroids is anything but funny.
The Cold War fear of Communism conditioned millions of our citizens to recoil in a kind of panic-paranoia at the mere suggestion of anything containing the word social. The result is that millions of people can be relied on to vote against their own interests and, worse, to stand by and actually cheer on the looting, as Wall Street skims the cream off the stock market each day using supercomputers with which no individual investor can compete.
If America is to save its middle class, we must put ideological fantasy aside and face the reality once and for all that nations with a strong middle class have never existed anywhere on earth without an enormous ongoing investment in both hard and soft infrastructure.
The conservative ethos for frugality and stopping wasteful spending is of great value, but we should apply it judiciously across the board without exception. Instead, America's military industrial complex, the private prison industry, and our healthcare and our financial systems have been purged of the ability to accomplish anything on a broad economic scale except to satisfy the greed of a few well-placed individuals. This is not freedom. These people aren't really winners. But the rest of us are indeed losers.
It's insane to believe we can maintain a viable economy and a strong middle class with lower and lower taxes at the same time a class of privileged executives, empowered by their governmental and legislative connections, ransack corporate finances whether they are successful managers or not. Their real managerial expertise is too often beside the point. It's quid pro quo all the way, as these executives and their boards plunder the public trust with enough sleight of hand that everyday citizens mistake larceny for strategy.
Today John Naisbitt's horse representing America's middle class is headed for the abyss, unless average citizens begin to demand a change in direction. 
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